2023-2024: An Anniversary Year

By Lori Thomas, Ph.D.

December marks the midpoint in our academic and fiscal calendars at UNC Charlotte. It’s a time when the buzz of the holiday season adds a layer of exams, grading, and graduation. And just as quickly, faculty and staff on campus begin preparing for the semester to come, the remainder of the academic year. Sometimes it’s almost imperceptible, but a pause is there as the university closes down between the Christmas Eve holiday and New Year’s Day – an invitation for us to reflect on our accomplishments and learnings, and prepare to transition to what’s quickly around the corner.

At the Charlotte Urban Institute and Regional Data Trust, we’re a part of this academic cycle, celebrating and reflecting on what has passed and anticipating what is immediately ahead in 2024. I’d like to share a few of the events that have our attention at this time, during a year where we have reached and will celebrate key anniversaries:

In 2023:

The Gambrell Faculty Fellows program turned 5
In 2023, we welcomed our fifth cohort of Gambrell Faculty Fellows , a program funded by The Gambrell Foundation that supports research around the many dimensions of economic mobility that are relevant for our local and regional communities. The fellowship now includes 44 faculty scholars (including 2 scholars who were selected for a second project) working on 25 projects. The Gambrell Fellows represent all our academic colleges and 22 different disciplines on campus. This kind of diverse representation matters, since improving upward economic mobility is multifaceted and won’t be solved by single, uni-disciplinary solutions.

The initial tangible work from the Gambrell projects is coming in and includes resource sites, toolkits, and peer-reviewed articles and presentations. But additional work lies ahead as we work with the Gambrell Fellows and community members to build additional connections from the projects to the larger community work on economic mobility, to situate the work in the larger “so what.” Sometimes the impact of research is immediate (creating resource lists that specifically address a pressing need), sometimes it accumulates (trying to understand an area where there isn’t a lot of research, like corporate rentals) – both are important for our community.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer turned 10
In 2023, the Institute and our partners at the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County marked 10 years since a lengthy annual study and report series commissioned by the City of Charlotte and conducted by UNC Charlotte faculty, students, and Institute staff transitioned to the Quality of Life Explorer, a public tool that allows users to visualize 80+ variables across our 463 neighborhoods. We are celebrating the collaborative work and the extensive neighborhood engagement that led to the establishment of the 462 neighborhood profile areas that define the tool, its wide use over the last decade, and the automation of much of the data backend.

Perhaps more than anything else, we’re reflecting on the power of a shared and accessible tool to create a common language. Through the Quality of Life Explorer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg began to use the language of a crescent, or arc of poverty, and a wedge of wealth and it became a foundation that we used to explore the realities of the metro area’s ranking on economic mobility. It provided a powerful common visual and language to describe what some of us knew and what many of us were learning about our community.

We’re also reflecting on the limits of that language without further and ongoing sensemaking. Our neighborhoods are shifting rapidly as more central neighborhoods rapidly develop, displacing longtime residents and small businesses, often Black families and people of color. While many features of the wedge have remained similar over time, the crescent is shifting and our language and understanding needs to shift as well.

How do we do that? First, we engage the tool. In 2023, we worked with Lakeview Neighborhood Alliance to pilot a data walk using Quality of Life Explorer data that neighborhood representatives selected for the deeper dive. Second, we add indicators. We incorporate what we learn from engagement and emerging data sources to increase its descriptive power. Third, we use the data for research. Beyond a cross-sectional tool (i.e., a snapshot ), how do we build off the Quality of Life Explorer’s capacity for longitudinal analysis (i.e., a movie)? The Institute will meet with our partners at the City and County in 2024 to discuss these priorities as we begin planning for our next decade.

In 2024:

The Chetty team’s Charlotte metro ranking turns 10
Next year, the publication of the research that challenged Charlotte to reckon with economic mobility is a decade old. While not our only collective aim, it has become a central and animating focus of the community, shifting vision and mission statements and funding and legislative priorities. Even in our efforts to mobilize around other challenges and opportunities, like housing stability and arts and cultural resources, economic mobility is ever present, reminding us what a lack of mobility looks like and where we may find tools that move us closer to a shared prosperity.

In so many ways, we should celebrate this as a strength. First, in a city of plans where the motivating energy may last three to five years, we’re approaching a decade since the original work by the Raj Chetty research team called us to action. Call it a wake-up call, an affirmation, or an embarrassment, the focus on economic mobility has staying power. Second, it aligned a broad and diverse group of organizations and individuals. And third, it became one lens for us to understand the historical and policy contextual factors of the last three years, from the disparate impact of the pandemic to the uprising following the murder of George Floyd.

But there is always a risk in one celebrated focus, one story, one anything – if we aren’t vigilant, it can draw us away from realities on the ground, from the complexity of suffering and change among humans in spaces that are tremendously fragmented by policy design. Earlier this month, the United Way of Greater Charlotte gave us a big number – $300 million – what it would cost to implement the Home For All plan and address homelessness in uptown. As a homelessness scholar and former practitioner, when I learned of this number I didn’t blink – it reflects the cost of addressing this complexity, the realities on the ground when all of our residents can’t access paths to housing and economic prosperity. We should be reckoning with the cost of addressing key community challenges much more openly. The things that led us to a low ranking don’t just magically disappear with cheap, simple solutions. As Chetty noted in his recent visit to UNC Charlotte, “you get what you pay for.”

When Chetty spoke at UNC Charlotte in November, he hinted that Charlotte would be pleased when, sometime in 2024, the decade-old study that has shaped us is updated with an additional decade of data. When we see this new research, we have the opportunity to hold both the clarity and focus a shared goal like economic mobility can bring, and a clear-eyed recognition of the ongoing complexity and cost of meaningfully addressing it.

The Charlotte Regional Data Trust turns 20 and the Institute turns 55
Finally, among these anniversaries, we’re especially looking forward to two significant ones. The Charlotte Regional Data Trust, an integrated data system that links data across organizations and sectors, turns 20 in 2024 and the Institute turns 55. We’ll look back and celebrate as the year unfolds, recognizing the leaders, researchers, students, and partners that have built the two organizations, but in this season, this midpoint in 2023-2024, we are looking forward to what’s ahead.

First, we launch our improved data infrastructure and celebrate the people and partners who have made it possible. Improvements include a web portal with access for data users and data depositors, as well as data partner dashboards that allow our partners to understand their data in greater context. In addition, improvements include more extensive metadata and improved internal processes for efficiency and security. And importantly, organization and process improvements include recruitment for our Community Data Advisory Committee, a part of our governance that brings people overrepresented in our data, with lived experiences, into the Data Trust’s leadership.

Second, we launch regional data tools including a Regional Explorer and a Regional Zoning Atlas. The Regional Explorer will use the publicly available framework and the automated backend of the Quality of Life Explorer to launch a census tract based explorer for the 14 county region, creating an emerging platform that regional partners can use to provide quality of life indicators for their communities. The Regional Zoning Atlas will standardize zoning ordinances across our region so that researchers can assess patterns and examine how zoning affects development across the Charlotte region.

Finally, we will build an IDEA. Through the generosity of an anonymous funder, the Institute and partners will build the Impact, Data, and Evaluation Academy (IDEA), a community-built and community-driven continuing education initiative designed to provide accessible and actionable research, evaluation, and data management training for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region, particularly staff and boards of small and grassroots organizations. IDEA will include a certificate and training program and a data stewardship program. More to come as the planning and implementation of the work takes off in early 2024.

We are excited about the year ahead and we are grateful for your support and readership over this past year. Stay tuned for more information about the initiatives discussed in this newsletter. If you’d like to hear more about any of our initiatives, reach out in the new year. And if you would like to support the Institute and Data Trust, we welcome your year-end gifts – you can give online (enter the Urban Institute in the search bar) or through additional options. Thank you and Happy Holidays!